22 Jul 2016

Star Trek’s far-off vision of the future

From Widescreen, 9:54 am on 22 July 2016

As the latest feature film hits big screens, the Star Trek vision of a peaceful and inclusive society seems further off than ever, says Dan Slevin​.

When the Star Trek TV series debuted back in 1966, an initially ambivalent America got a taste of the future that it could scarcely credit.

No Cold War for a start. Limitless clean energy. All races and (almost) all species working together to further exploration, science and diplomacy rather than conquest.

Creator Gene Roddenberry sensibly set the show as far into the future as he thought he could – about 300 years hence – because viewers would know that the fantasy couldn’t become reality overnight. But he knew that 1966 Star Trek wasn’t really about 2266 at all. In one interview he was quoted as saying: “I have no belief that Star Trek depicts the actual future. It depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that.”

Ground-breaking moments like television’s first inter-racial kiss confirmed Star Trek as a pioneer in terms of presenting a changing America on screen. In Justin Lim’s new film set in the rebooted Star Trek universe, Star Trek Beyond, we are presented with the franchise’s first out gay character – John Cho’s Hikaru Sulu has been chosen to carry this particular rainbow torch in honour of activist and former Sulu George Takei (who has mixed feelings about it).

This isn’t a review of the new film. I’m sure my colleagues will perform admirably in that respect. What I am recording here, though, is how I felt watching it last night – nostalgic, or perhaps more accurately, “wistful”, as if we’ve left something behind somehow and we don’t know how to find it.

That something feels like the sense of hope that the original series dealt in. It’s not the fault of Star Trek Beyond, I don’t think.

Co-screenwriter Simon Pegg adores the franchise and has attempted, I believe, to recreate the feel of a classic Star Trek episode on a $200 million budget and largely succeeded.

No, what’s changed is us. Sometimes looking at the news and social media it can feel like society is determined to undo all the good that has been achieved since the 60s. As the United States, Europe and the Middle East fracture along the same old economic, racial and nationalist fault lines and as the politicians that would lead us prefer to pander to our collective deep-seated pathologies of fear and mistrust rather than actually, you know, lead, fairness, acceptance, tolerance and optimism seem a lot further away than 300 years.

So, what purpose does a Star Trek universe still hold for us? Beyond doesn’t have the measure of the zeitgeist at all – but how could it? The world is changing so fast.

But as we seem to edge ever closer to the fiery pits of hell, laughing at the absurdity of it all along the way, I am also reminded that the mostly peaceful and inclusive future offered by the United Federation of Planets was only possible because of World War III on Earth so maybe we are on the right track after all…

Star Trek Beyond has opened worldwide this week.

Sofia Boutella as Jaylah and Chris Pine reprising his Kirk in Star Trek Beyond

Sofia Boutella as Jaylah and Chris Pine reprising his Kirk in Star Trek Beyond Photo: Paramount Pictures

Further Reading

Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s – an academic paper from 1995 by J. William Snyder, Jr.

Jessica Ritchey at RogerEbert.com reflects on my favourite of the Star Trek films, VI: The Undiscovered Country and its belief in the future:

If it’s true that films reflect the time they’re made, it’s also true they gain new facets in the times they’re rewatched. If the dissolution of the Soviet Union is the seismic shift felt under “The Undiscovered Country'"s plot, the pall of Trumpism and Brexit hangs over it now.

LGBTrek: A Brief History of Queerness on “Star Trek” – Mallory Andrews at MovieMezzanine